55 Yard Line

NFL prospect Luke Willson has remarkable potential in both football and baseball

Andrew Bucholtz
55 Yard Line

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Rice tight end Luke Willson (82) is an impressive football player, but can also play baseball.

For all the hard work and experience that can matter in athletics, raw athletic ability can also play a substantial role in a player's success—and that can translate across sports. That's why you'll sometimes see football teams taking a chance on baseball players and vice versa (minor-league players-turned-NFL quarterbacks Russell Wilson and Brandon Weeden are two examples here), and some even more unusual cross-sport moves (such as skateboarder-turned-hockey player-turned-CFL draft pick Chris Hodgson). Rice University tight end Luke Willson might be the latest along those lines. Willson was selected in the fifth round of last year's CFL draft by Toronto (32nd overall) and has a chance to go in this year's NFL draft, but used to be a member of Canada's high-profile national junior baseball team. As Rachel Brady of The Globe and Mail writes, the Blue Jays might still be interested in him if football doesn't pan out:

During that time, the Blue Jays also invited him for a workout in Toronto, despite the fact that he hadn’t swung the bat much in two years outside of a little summer-league baseball in Texas.

“He hit one ball into the third deck, and a few home runs to centre field after not really picking up the bat much in a few years,” Andrew Tinnish, Blue Jays assistant general manager, said. “What stood out for us were his power and his athleticism. He’s very raw and hasn’t played a lot of baseball, but when you have someone who has a great makeup like that, works hard and has terrific raw ability, we’ll take risks on those types of players.”

...For now, football is his top choice, but if it doesn’t work out, the Jays would be willing to talk.

Tinnish's quotes there say a lot about the overall athletic ability some players like Willson carry, and it's notable that he's already had to show that off just within football. In Canada, he was a big slotback, able to use his size and quickness to take advantage of Canadian football's motion rules and catch passes over the middle. In the NCAA, he's had to evolve into a tight end, put on muscle, start in a stance and block rushers as well as catch passes. At 6'5'' and 250 pounds, Willson's a little small by NFL tight end standards, but he has more speed than most (he ran a 4.46 second 40-yard dash at his pro day, better than every single receiver at this year's CFL combine), and he's shown an ability to produce as a pass-catcher for the Owls, hauling in 62 receptions for 738 yards and six touchdowns in 2010 and 2011. This year wasn't as strong for him statistically, as he battled injuries and only caught nine passes for 126 yards, but he's still a very quick tight end who could create defensive mismatches, and that might get some NFL teams interested in him.

Willson's far from a lock to wind up in the NFL, though, but what's particularly interesting about him is that may not be the factor keeping him from the CFL. It's quite conceivable he could be like Stefan Charles or Bo Lokombo, Canadian football players likely to wind up in the NFL, but if that doesn't work out for him, baseball can't be written off. Yes, he's been focusing on football for the last few years, but the Jays clearly seem to have some interest in him. If the NFL doesn't pan out, the CFL could be a great fit for Willson, as he might make an outstanding Canadian slotback with his size and his impressive quickness. The lure of baseball might prove more attractive, though. Willson clearly is a remarkable athletic specimen, and he's a player who will be interesting to watch wherever he winds up.

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